Continuing from my last post about how a woman Sherlock Holmes could have gotten a university education in the 1870’s, I thought I’d do something a little different this time.
As a welcome gift for my newsletter subscribers, I wrote a short novella that’s my version of The Gloria Scott, which is canon Sherlock Holmes’ first case. The original story is set when Holmes is a university student. During a holiday break from classes, he goes home with his friend Victor Trevor, and during his visit, he uncovers an uncomfortable mystery involving Victor’s father.
My version of this is The Glorious Scot, and today I’m sharing an excerpt from it with you all. It’s set during Sherlyn Holmes’ and Dr. Siân Watson’s early days together, after they’ve been living at 221B Baker Street about 2 months. They are in the middle of the case that I will be detailing in A Study in Garnet (via Patreon), and Watson has encouraged Holmes to take this other side case as a distraction from the main case. Holmes quickly solves the side case, but it brings up some bad memories for her. Watson wants to know what happened, and Holmes brings out a painting, The Glorious Scot, and tells Watson the story of it.
The excerpt begins after Holmes has shown Watson the painting, and it focuses on Holmes’ life at Girton and her first meeting of Victoria Trevor. It’s told from Watson’s point of view as she relays Holmes’ story to us. There is a brief section I cut for the sake of keeping the post a bit shorter. That is shown by […]. Hope you enjoy!
“Did you know that I, too, attended university?” Holmes asked. Her lips twisted scornfully. “Or at least the milquetoast substitute offered to women in this country.”
The change of subject startled me. “I believe you may have mentioned it, yes.”
“I matriculated at Girton College in 1873.”
“Cambridge!” I sat forward, gripping the edge of the box holding the painting. “Now that is something you didn’t tell me before.”
“Not truly Cambridge, you know. I believe it is officially termed ‘a recognized institution for the higher education of women.’” She sneered. “’Cambridge’s unacknowledged bastard child’ would be a more accurate description. Girton students may now sit the Tripos examinations, but they are awarded no degrees and are not considered Cambridge students.”
I felt the bitter sting of it all in my own heart, but I summoned my most jovial tone. “Change is coming, Holmes. Look at the strides we’ve made just in the past twenty years!”
She wasn’t cheered. “Strides should not have to be made.” She leaned over her chair to reach for the coal scuttle where she—for reasons I could not fathom—kept a tin of chocolate-covered coffee beans. She opened the tin and offered me a bean. I took one, and she took three and then settled the tin on her lap. “Equality for women need not take time, except for the resistance of men.”
“Agreed.” A question came to me. “Why did you not go abroad for university? Zurich, as I did, or even America?”
Holmes grimaced. “Mycroft achieved senior wrangler at Cambridge, and at the time, it was my dearest wish to follow in his footsteps as nearly as was possible for me.”
The tightness in her voice reminded me that we were supposed to be discussing the reason for the breach between Holmes and her brother. “You were very close to him back then?”
She lifted one shoulder. “I’m not sure how close one can be to a brother who is seven years the elder. But Mycroft was generally kind to me, and I admired him far more than, on retrospect, I ought to have done. I foolishly created an ideal of him in my mind—a youthful mistake that I shall be careful never to replicate.”
Her words brought back memories of my own childhood adulation of my elder sisters; and for a moment, my throat tightened, and I could not reply.
“I passed the entrance examinations in 1872,” she continued, “but the college, which had originally been located in Hitchens, was nearing completion of larger and nicer facilities in Girton the following year. So Father convinced me to wait until 1873 to matriculate. There were fifteen of us in that class.”
“Were you reading for a Tripos?”
“Mathematics, of course,” she said. “Girton was quite adamant about that. But my real interest was chemistry, so I was also reading for the Natural Sciences Tripos.”
If Holmes had sat a Tripos exam, I would have heard of it. It was my understanding that there had been a few Girton students early on who sat the exams unofficially. […]
“You are wondering why I did not sit the exams.” Holmes’s voice was brittle, and she was uncharacteristically avoiding my gaze.
“They are known to be among the most grueling of endeavors, but you would have excelled—of that I am certain.”
“My excitement about attending university was boundless. But the reality was far more frustrating than I’d imagined. My fellow students were immensely clever, but most hadn’t had the necessary amount of education to allow them to keep pace with our male counterparts. And the lectures we had access to—both at Girton and at Cambridge—were disappointingly limited. I studied everything I could in math, Latin, Greek, and chemistry. But I felt terribly constrained.”
I could well understand her aggrievement. It had been the same for me both in medical school and in subsequent training. I had never felt as intellectually free as I had at Netley disguised as a man, and it was infuriating.
She ate another three chocolate-covered coffee beans and offered me the tin. I shook my head. Coffee beans were not a treat I could enjoy in abundance, but Holmes grazed on them like a horse on grass.
She wrapped her long, slim fingers around the tin and tapped it absently while she continued her tale. “It has always been difficult for me to remember that most people mistake impatience for arrogance. The other students thought my unhappiness with my studies revealed a disdain for my classmates—as if I believed myself superior to them because I wanted to proceed at a quicker pace. I found myself quite isolated by the end of my first year there.”
“I am sorry.”
Her mouth flattened into a self-deprecating frown. “The fault was my own. I’ve learned to be better at social graces—I can be quite charming, you know, when I determine to be so. But at the time, I was more interested in expressing my dissatisfaction than I was in cultivating friends.”
I had grown used to Holmes’s cutting insights into other people, but her capacity for ruthless self-assessment never failed to astonish me. “It’s difficult to accept the errors our younger selves made when they have such far-reaching consequences.”
“Indeed.” Her eyes fell on The Glorious Scot still in its box on my lap. “But you are wondering what this all has to do with that painting.”
“It may have crossed my mind,” I admitted.
She laughed a little. “Watson, you must feel free to set my story back on the rails if I have gone off. Don’t be delicate about it.”
I grinned. “Very well. Get on with it. What about the painting?”
“Well, you see, I did find one friend at Girton. She was the same year as I, but she was even less inclined toward friendships than I was, so we barely spoke that first year.”
“I thought you were wanting to be put back on the rails to talk about the painting.” I winked at her to show I was only jesting.
She arced an eyebrow. “Do try to have at least some patience and not ruin a story with constant interruption.” But her gray eyes twinkled.
“My most abject apologies. Please continue.”
With a triumphant look, she popped another coffee bean into her mouth. “I was out walking one morning, and I came across a woman’s backside protruding from under some bushes. She was murmuring something, and as it was a very elegant backside in danger of becoming snagged by the branches, I came closer to see if she was in need of assistance.”
“How chivalrous of you, Holmes,” I murmured, trying not to smile.
“I asked her if she was all right, and she replied, ‘I’m quite fine, thank you, but there’s an injured kitten tangled up in here.’
I thought it rather charming that she was so concerned about the kitten’s welfare, so I hunched down next to her. ‘May I help?’
‘Perhaps if you can go around to the other side of the hedge,’ came the response. ‘Some boys were tormenting it, and they tied sticks and other rubbish to its tail. Now the string is all snarled, and I’m worried the poor thing will injure itself further trying to claw free.’
So I circled around to the opposite side and peered under the hedge. Now I could hear the kitten mewling, and I saw the face that went with the backside. It was my classmate, Victoria Trevor.
When she saw me as well, she looked shocked. ‘Holmes! I didn’t think you cared much for animals.’
‘What an inaccurate assumption to make, from barely any evidence.’ I crawled further into the hedge. ‘I will hold it while you slip its tail free.’
‘I didn’t mean to be unkind,’ she said, now lying on her side while I reached for the kitten. ‘My apologies.’
‘I said nothing about unkind. Merely that your deduction was baseless.’
Once I was able to keep the kitten still, she quickly freed it from its tangles. We met again on the other side of the hedge, and I gave her the kitten.
‘Again, I apologize for my rudeness earlier. I appreciate your help.’
‘Think nothing of it,’ I assured her. ‘What will you do with that?’ I nodded at the kitten.
She held it close to her, and her eyes glowed with mischief. ‘Take it back to my room.’
‘And how will you hide the presence of a cat? It will need a box of sand, you know, as well as food and water. And it’s injured.’
‘It’s absurd that we aren’t allowed pets. Many of the Cambridge students keep animals.’
‘Well, I shan’t turn you in, of course, only it would be too bad if you’ve gone through all this trouble only to have someone put the cat out on the street again.’
‘I think there’s a sixty-three percent chance of getting away with it. I’ll accept the risk,’ she said.
I walked her back to her room and helped her smuggle in the kitten. And then I stayed, and we talked, and by the time I left, we were friends.”
“What became of the kitten?” I asked.
“She managed to keep it hidden for five days before it was discovered. By this time, though, she’d already convinced a woman in the village to take the kitten, with the promise that she could visit from time to time to play with it.”
“And now you had a friend,” I prompted her.
“Victoria was…” Holmes sighed, suddenly looking weary. “I don’t think ‘friend’ can fully capture it. We were inseparable. Obsessively so, really. I called her ‘Janie’—after her middle name, Jane. And she called me ‘Freddy’—a teasing reference to my Christian name, which, if you recall, is Winifred. There was a like-mindedness between us, as if we had known each other our entire lives and had just forgotten until that moment at the hedge.”
I shifted in my chair, my heart clenching for reasons I didn’t understand. “That must have been thrilling for you.”
If you want to read the full story, you can join my newsletter and download it from BookFunnel.
Next time, I’ll be posting about the “New Woman” movement and how Holmes and Watson would fit into it.